I have a new hero. His name is Dr. Jeffrey Piehler. Dr. Piehler, a renowned cardiovascular surgeon, is one of nine people who shares his perspectives on death in a PBS special, Into the Night. Dr. Piehler lived for 12 years with prostate cancer that metastasized into nearly every bone in his body. He died in 2014 at the age of 71, three months after his last interview for the PBS special.
The theme of the PBS program is the quote from the poet Dylan Thomas, who famously advised:
“Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Some of the guests interviewed for the show agreed with this view of dying; we should fight as long and hard as we can against the “dying of the light.” A calm and reflective presence, Dr. Piehler disagrees. He says, “Acknowledging my mortality is absolutely the path that has taken me to where I am. It has rewritten my capacity to love and be loved.” He goes on to describe “the fundamental restructuring of your thinking when you realize that your days are numbered. . . . . All my thoughts are going to important places and everything else is gone, just vaporized. . . I have been on a voyage through storms, whirlpools, moments of near blissful sun and moments of sheer terror and indescribable peace. I have moved from denial to ecstatic acceptance.”
Piehler defines the process of dying as a “letting go” and says that each letting go “rewards you.” But, he quickly adds, “Letting go is not a linear process.” He describes having to give up his surgical practice when his hands became numb from the chemo therapy – a letting go he regretted. But he points out, “There are a lot of things that I gave up that I don’t mind giving up. I gave up material things and things like envy and jealousy, and I’ve given up a lot of regrets. . . . But the problem is that just when I think I’ve got the thing [letting go] down, something will happen – just a small thing – like my daughter coming down the stairs in the morning, and saying, ‘Good morning, Dad. How did you sleep last?’ And then I realize that I’ll never know anything more about that and I’m back to stage 1.”
In December 2015, I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer. The median survival rate after diagnosis for this cancer is 44 months, although many patients live much longer. I am currently taking a break from chemo, but I know that eventually, probably sooner than later, the cancer will surge back. I have been learning and practicing detachment, “letting go,” for many years. I have discovered, as did Dr. Pieler, a fellow Christ-follower, that every little surrender makes a coming death, especially one that is imminent and certain (not just an acknowledgement that everything that lives eventually dies) easier to accept. I am so grateful for Jeffrey Pieler’s luminous testimony that our human denial of the inevitable end of our lives can be changed to “ecstatic acceptance” if we release our lives into God’s hands.